Stephen Dorff’s career has been anything but predictable. Case in point: After starring in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere last year, he went on to play a porn king in Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star. And this weekend we'll see him as a Greek slave in the sword-and-sandals epic Immortals, directed by Tarsem Singh and featuring Henry Cavill as a hero trying to stop a torture-happy despot (Mickey Rourke) from taking over the world. We spoke with Dorff about getting in shape for the entirely shirtless role (while avoiding "man breasts" and "chest acne"). Plus, his thoughts on Somewhere's lukewarm reception in the U.S., and why he's still protective of Elle Fanning.
This is kind of an obvious thing to say for a Tarsem Singh movie, but the visuals were pretty damn amazing.
That’s what I hear. I haven’t seen the whole movie yet. I’ve been so crazed and I wanted to see it with a big audience. But everyone seems to be liking it. Even women have said it is, like, poetic? Like the blood looks kind of beautiful, so they didn’t get grossed out?
You sound skeptical of the “poetic” description.
I just didn’t expect them to like it at all. I remember Tarsem telling me he was gonna go pretty brutal, that it was kind of this fantasy movie for adults that young kids would wanna see, too. That was the whole reason I got involved, was because of him. I’d just finished Somewhere with Sofia Coppola, and I thought it was weird to get naked in this crazy movie where I’m just in a pair of leather pants. But I thought, God, this guy has such a vision and with all this money he could probably go to town. I knew that guys would probably be into it, but I was shocked at how many women liked it.
Was Tarsem specific about what he wanted your body to look like, since he's such a visual perfectionist?
Not down to, like, crafting. I think you go with the body you have — there’s only so much you can change. I’ve gotten in shape for movies before this one, but I had a little extra motivation once I had my first wardrobe fitting and realized I wasn’t gonna be shirtless in just a few scenes: I was gonna be shirtless throughout the entirety. I felt like I had to do it anyway, just for me and my future wife and whoever is gonna be watching Immortals in ten years. So I worked out pretty hard.
Last time you talked to Vulture, you said you brought in your own fitness trainers because you disagreed with how the other actors were training. What was the issue, specifically?
I had a different set of trainers because when I got to Montreal [where Immortals was shot], I was coming back from Japan and I tweaked my back at an airport. My lower back was really screwed up in a way it had never been before, and I felt like I’d get more out of having my own team to get my back in shape and get the right exercises. I also didn’t wanna have man breasts, and there were a lot of man breasts in the cast. I felt like it looked like people had gotten chest implants. I wanted to stick with the abs look.
There were a lot of ridiculously ripped abs for one movie. With all those ripped men walking around the set, there must have been some comparing of abs and biceps?
Yeah, I’m sure some people would’ve had a field day. I didn’t, really. I was kind of looking forward to when Isabel [Lucas] and Freida [Pinto] arrived just so we could see some girls, some people of the opposite sex. It was a little man-heavy, a little too much stunt play for me. Body odor and Coppertone suntan spray. I need a little break every once in a while. I’m just joking. For me it was, let’s just get into it and do it. I’m not really the actor who wants to compare nipples and pec size, and Tarsem wasn’t that anal. I had hair on my chest, so he wanted me to shave my chest for a cleaner look. I was like "Fine, I’m just not gonna wax my chest." There was this incredible chest acne breakout, which I wasn’t interested in. So I came up with the fact that I could do it with my Braun electric razor. It was a much cleaner way of going and I didn’t get any chest acne. I don’t have that much hair. I’m also so dirty — I’m probably the dirtiest guy in the movie, being a slave. I’d never spent that much time in a makeup room, because normally I’m not naked in a movie so much. I have a lot of tattoos and it took a long time to get me ready. It was annoying. I had an extra hour and a half on everybody because we had to airbrush the tattoos. Then we put the grease on, but the grease takes the tattoo makeup off. Then you put on the dirt and then you can’t see the abs that I’ve been working so hard on. It was a disaster. And usually I’m thinking about my character, not all this kind of stuff.
Immortals was one of your biggest green-screen experiences, I take it?
Tarsem kept it really grounded for us. I hear that on 300, everything was fake: If I’m sitting on a chair, I’m sitting on an apple box and they put the chair in later. I’d say 60 or 70 percent of it was there and the other 40 percent was [digitally] put in. By doing that I think he created a real foundation for the actors to feel a little more organic, so I liked that. I think when you do these kinds of movies, they’re already so big and weird and take you out of things.
Did you have to overcome any skepticism about doing a big 3-D movie, given the backlash to 3-D?
Right now every movie is in 3-D — I’m surprised The Help wasn’t released in 3-D — so I hope that this turns out to be one that’ll go down as one of the good ones. I’m not a huge 3-D guy myself. I’ve done it before and I like it when it’s used right, but it’s very rarely used right. I’m always like, “Now I feel nauseous, my eyes hurt, these glasses suck.”
You have a movie coming up, The Motel Life, with Dakota Fanning. Did you notice any uncanny similarities between Dakota and Elle Fanning, whom you worked with in Somewhere?
I think they’ve got some magic juice running through their veins. A couple of times when they would talk, I’d look over and think I heard Elle and it would be Dakota. Like a squeal, or if they saw something that was funny. But it’s crazy to be working with both of them in the same year and a half. Now Elle is, like, taller than me, and the glamour queen of Hollywood. Guys are asking if they can meet her and I’m, like, about to punch people because I wanna protect her.
I imagine Somewhere opened doors to new kinds of films for you.
Yeah, it changed my whole life. I needed a Sofia, someone to endorse me and see me play a different side to myself. I wanna play real characters. I’m growing up and I wanna do it on film. She gave me that opportunity in spades. Do I think they missed it in America with that movie? Yeah, big time. The movie was a smash in Europe. So was I bummed? Yeah, I was a little bummed. But did it change the way I feel about the movie? No, not at all. People love that movie more every day. But to answer your question, did it open doors? Yeah, in big ways. I don’t think I would’ve gotten The Motel Life if I hadn’t done Somewhere, which is single-handedly the best script of the last year for young dudes, young guys, whatever I am. I’m not that young anymore. Thank God for Mickey Rourke and John Hurt, or I’d be the oldest guy on the [Immortals] cast. Do I look old in the movie?
No, not at all.
Am I aging okay?
Okay, good. I just wanna make my mom proud upstairs. My grandma and my mom, I want them to be like, “Damn, he looks hot!”